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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Two Thousand Years
Cottesloe Theatre Autumn-Winter 2005;    Lyttelton Spring-Summer 2006

Two Thousand Years is a play that is sometimes involving and sometimes off-putting, frequently fascinating and ultimately frustrating. It is, in short, a Mike Leigh play.

Most people know about writer-director Mike Leigh's way of making his plays and films. He presents his actors with a basic situation and then sends them off to research and develop their characters. Then they spend weeks on improvisations until he finds a plot developing and only then writes the script.

When it works, you get plays and films of multi-textured reality because everyone inhabits their characters so fully. When it doesn't work, you get a bit of a mess. (To be fair, Leigh's batting average is at least as good as most conventional playwrights.)

Two Thousand Years falls, I fear, into the second category. Almost every individual scene works on some level, but no two seem to belong in the same play.

The repeated shifts in focus, subject, tone and point-of-view are ultimately more exhausting and irritating than engrossing.

The play is set in the London home of a prosperous middle-aged Jewish couple, and the first scene seems almost to come out of an Arnold Wesker play, as they express their disappointment in a cause (With Wesker it would have been Communism; here it's Israel) that they once embraced but now feel alienated from.

No sooner has that subject been presented for our serious consideration, than the tone changes, the gears grinding noisily, to the level of a TV sitcom.

The characters shrink to one-dimensional stereotypes as they overreact to a supposedly comic stimulus: the adult son of this liberal, secularized family is suddenly embracing his Judaism and becoming religious.

Their responses play like a parody reversal of how a stereotyped orthodox family would act if he asked for a ham sandwich. (Indeed, 'That's why he didn't touch the bacon' is the first laugh-line of the scene.)

And then that, too, is dropped. (The son remains in the play, skulking around the edges like Hamlet until a final scene that dismisses the whole episode as a kind of adolescent phase.)

The family's appropriately unreligiously liberal daughter brings home her new Israeli boyfriend and, instead of a comic reaction, we get a scene of Shavian discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The discussion is a good one that doesn't pretend to reach any easy answers except to bemoan the fact that both sides don't have wiser leaders than they do.

And then, guess what, a whole new play starts, as the family's black sheep, a long-estranged sister, shows up and proves to be a total cartoon, a monster of self-absorption unable to acknowledge anyone beyond herself or think of anything beyond what her tiny attention span is focussed on at the moment.

She's clearly meant to be a comic character, but is so very unpleasant that the audience is as eager to get rid of her as those onstage.

And so on, through another scene or two. Each of the scenes I've described works on its own terms and yes, there is a common thread of sorts in the identity dilemmas of secular Jews.

But it takes more than a thread to make a play hang together. There has to be some consistency of tone (or at least logic to the changes), some continuity of plot, some guidance in where we're supposed to be looking and what we're meant to be thinking and feeling.

As the central couple, Caroline Gruber and Allan Corduner clearly know their characters intimately and do their best to anchor the play in a reality. John Brugess's semi-comic grandfather is never much more than a stereotype, and Nitzan Sharron's Israeli is just a mouthpiece for part of the discussion scene.

Samantha Spiro succeeds in making the sister a total horror, which is some sort of accomplishment, though she never for a minute makes her real.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Two Thousand Years - National Theatre 2005

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